Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Waiting for DropD-3

“The Reader” is still in my mind. I had been waiting for a stage when my lust for cinema could transform itself into love for cinema. Love here means a kind of meditative relationship with the image and the theme of the film. Generally, cinema gets reduced down into a heap of incoherent images which somebody wants to unshackle but is unable to. Of late, I feel that I have learned to relax with a film, agitate with a film and live with a film. That is what I call the beginning of a relationship with cinema. When I thought of starting this series, I had in my mind this particular series of relationships with the landmark films that I have seen through and lived through. Cinema is just not a context anymore rather it is the text, the subtext, inter-text and the hypertext also. I know that this kind of visuality is not same as a phenomenon of “darshan” would be. Still, the visual discourse is the closest to the kind of experience I am looking for. “The Reader” has somewhat fallen into this personal category.
The historical context of this film is built around the tragedy of Holocaust. Hanna Schmitz has two identities in this film, a public and a private. On a private level, she is a secretive human being; she doesn't seem to have friends or family and she doesn't seem to be much concerned with the broader issues of her times. But she is a compassionate human being. She helps young Michael when he is suffering from fever. She doesn't know him but that doesn't deter her from caring him. He turns out to be an accidental partner in her lonely life. She doesn't seem to be much attached with him but still, she gets passionately involved with him. He is an intelligent student of classical languages and literature. He reads out some brilliant pieces of fiction to her. A sudden eruption of beauty and pleasure happens to create a magical equation that heals her long concealed handicap-an inability to read and write. Her desire to explore the aesthetic world is fulfilled through a chance meeting with Michael when he manifests his reading skills. He seems to have an idea of her incapacity but does not reveal it because he loves reading out to her. A bond of love and literature binds both of them into a memorable affair though the intensity of feeling is much visible in Michael than in Hanna. To her, the relationship is more like an exchange of gifts. She receives the gift of aesthetic word from him and he receives the gift of love from her. The privacy of this arrangement fits well into the solitary life of hers.
On a public level, she is a German serving as a tram conductress in the times of Hitler. She serves a system which is openly revengeful in total contrast to her private secretive and compassionate nature. She looks at the system only from the angle of duty that enables her to earn her livelihood. She's neither interested nor seems to be capable of understanding the macro-issues related with the ethics of a system. In the pursuit of this narrow single-mindedness, she happens to commit a responsibility which is not just a war crime but also a crime against humanity. After being promoted as a security guard in German army, she is given the custody of Jews for whom only death has been chosen. She keeps herself locked in the narrow confines of duty and allows all kinds of injustice and cruelty to them though she doesn't participate in any such act directly. Her public identity is that of a criminal who is accused of crime against humanity.
Michael is torn apart between these two extremes. How can he accept the simultaneity of these two opposite identities? Is it a tragedy for only Michael or even for the entire Europe? What to talk of Europe, is it not common to Indian subcontinent where genocide and ethnic cleansing have resurrected themselves on multiple occasions in different forms whether it was partition, 1984 “Blue Star” operation, Godhra/Best Bakery or hundreds of caste-based clashes and so on. The possibility of recreating this story is present in so many moments and spaces all around that it is almost closer to being a universal story. In case of Europe, it was racial hegemony that destroyed human relationships the most. In case of Indian subcontinent, there are so many forms of hegemony built around caste, religion, gender, ethnicity and habitat that even relationship is made impossible in certain contexts. If I quote Ritwik Ghatak, I would say that there are “rows and rows of fences” between the human beings. In terms of imprisonment, I feel there is no difference being an Indian or a Westerner. That is why hegemonic walls are the biggest obstacles for relationships. This film is a story of struggle against these walls, a story of transcendence and a story of purgation. It comprises three parts: the first part manifests revelation of beauty and its vanishing; the second part unravels the hidden pain and the third part shows the re-collecting of lost beauty and love.
This film also has one additional reason for me to write about it. A couple of months back, I happened to read a beautiful article on this film by a scholar, Shelly Walia in ‘The Frontline’. Under the title, “Tragedy of history”, Mr. Walia elaborated upon the theme of the film in the context of political philosophy. I could see him wading through the debates on justice to find the eternally missing meaning. He was flexible enough not to get jinxed over the static definitions of good and evil. He says in favour of Hanna Schmitz, “She has no pleasure in cruelty, but has acquired the faculty of shutting her mind to it. This is regimentation under the strict bureaucracy. She lacks the criminal mind......... the fact that Hanna Schmitz enjoys her teenage paramour reading to her from the classics and that she permits him to make love to her only after she has relished the reading shows that her reprehensible act does not come from an evil mind.” These words were hitting rightly at the philosophical puzzle that has been posed in this film. Love is a deeply private and universal enterprise. It has to find its way through the public constructions that are denial of love. Michael represents this long journey throughout. Hanna is represented as an indifferent person and Michael doubles up thinking and feeling on her behalf. After eight years of Hanna’s vanishing, he comes across her in a courtroom where she is under trial. She has been charged of being a complicit in a church fire that killed hundreds of mothers and children who were locked inside. She was security guard controlling access to the doors. She was doing her duty but in the pages of history, an act of genocide was being committed. After having such a sudden face-off with her lost love, he finds himself stretched beyond limits. Whom did he love? A criminal or a beautiful and a compassionate woman.


Anonymous said...

"Jacob's Courage" (Mazo Publishers) is a tender coming of age love story of two young adults living in Salzburg at the time when the Nazi war machine enters Austria. This historical novel presents accurate scenes and situations of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps, with particular attention to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. It explores the dazzling beauty of passionate love and enduring bravery in a lurid world where the innocent are brutally murdered. From desperate despair, to unforgettable moments of chaste beauty, "Jacob’s Courage" examines a constellation of emotions during a time of incomprehensible brutality.

Ebrahim Kabir said...

Ghatak was a great man.